Wednesday 21 December 2016

Dead Letters

While I was in Derbyshire, the cousin and I dropped in on a rather unusual book sale. Unusual in that it was taking place in a private house, what was being sold off was the bulk of the late householder's personal library, and every single book was priced at 25p. The house was one of those old town houses that look quite modest from the street but go back and back, and up and up, and round and round in a warren of rooms and a maze of corridors. And almost every room and every corridor was lined with books, often from floor to ceiling - there were more books here than in Patrick Leigh Fermor's library. More and, for the most part, very different, with fiction and poetry barely present and a heavy emphasis on Ideas - scientific, sociological, historical, philosophical, economic, theological and spiritual. This was a Thinking Man's library (there were even some volumes from the Thinker's Library) and browsing the shelves was an education in how fast Ideas date and become dead letters.
 Who now would choose to read the magisterial pronouncements of H.G. Wells or Julian Huxley, G.B. Shaw or Arnold Toynbee, to say nothing of lesser, more completely forgotten, luminaries? Science books have perhaps the shortest shelf-life of all, though economics and sociology run it close. If it's eternal verities you're after (and if there are such things), you had far better seek them in works of imagination than in those of the intellect. Indeed I would maintain that all a person really needs to know (aside from technical matters) is to be found in Shakespeare. Nothing is quite so dead as the library of a Thinking Man who is essentially a follower of intellectual fashion.
 I could no doubt have made many useful - and at 25p absurdly cheap - purchases, but this vast library was too much for me. In the end, as we weren't going to be allowed out without buying something, I took a little volume of English epitaphs, while my cousin settled for a dog-themed parody of Schott's Miscellany and a useful dictionary of confusing words and meanings.

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